Archive for July, 2011« Older Entries |
Monday, July 25th, 2011
A French company is being paid millions to harass incapacity benefit claimants with the threat of being made destitute
Some sobering summer reading came my way on Monday: not The Social Animal or any of the voguish paperbacks being thumbed in Tuscany and elsewhere, but a report from the select committee on work and pensions (officially published on Tuesday). Bear with me: if you’ve got visions of a headache-inducing text full of tedium and officialspeak, nothing could be further from the truth. It is incisive, fact-packed, smattered with moving first-person testimony, and downloadable for free. Anyone with any interest in where Britain is heading ought to read it.
The report’s focus is on welfare reform – more specifically, the reassessment of 1.5 million people who have been on incapacity benefit, via the so-called work capability assessments, or WCAs. It sets out a story that includes plenty of the most fundamental aspects of life in modern Britain: the tabloid shrieking about the supposedly workshy that exerts such a grip on our politicians; the stupidly cushy terms on which whole chunks of the welfare state are being handed over to private companies; and above all, an underlying sense that the pain and panic that result from all this have precious little chance of gaining any political traction.
As of October 2008, incapacity benefit began to be replaced by the employment and support allowance – and anyone putting in a new claim faced the WCA, which places people in one of three categories: judged “fit for work” and introduced to the stringent regime based around jobseekers’ allowance; in effect deemed incapable of employment and put in a “support group”; or held to be somewhere between the two and thus destined for “work-related activity”. The monopoly provider of WCAs is Atos Healthcare, a division of a French IT firm, which had signed up for £100m of DWP business three years before.
Last October the reassessment of those 1.5 million people began, and the kind of alarming stories that crop up in the select committee report started to pile up. Ministers apparently claim that two official reviews have blunted the process’s worst shortcomings, but still: evidence from Citizens Advice Scotland says that the assessments, delivered by Atos’s doctors and nurses, “can last just 20 minutes”, and that “the yes/no format of the assessment is too narrow”. One page later you find a mind-boggling handful of paragraphs about the company’s “Logic Integrated Medical Assessment” (or Lima) computer system, which has often seemed to reduce complex cases to the stuff of binary idiocy.
The results of all this are obvious enough. Thousands of people have been fallaciously deemed fit for work. Even if your condition is sufficiently serious to avoid that fate – as the Mental Health charity Rethink puts it, “if a claimant can set an alarm clock, feed themselves and manage life without daily aggression or needing almost constant supervision” – you can still be pushed into “work-related activity” – which, under the terms of the government’s welfare bill, could see your employment and support allowance stopped after a year.
On Monday I heard from a man in the West Midlands; a diagnosed depressive and agoraphobic who was deemed fit for work, only to successfully appeal. “I have no confidence in the Atos way of assessment,” he told me, “as I feel it’s geared more to them ticking boxes and gaining brownie points … than the actual physical and mental wellbeing of each person.” He is now on to his third assessment, feeling “very apprehensive”, and in fear of “ending up on a mental health wing”.
From Rethink I received the story of a man suffering from bipolar disorder who had also been put through the assessment grinder. His account chimed with recent reports of WCA-related suicide attempts: “As a direct result of the way I have been treated by the DWP and Atos I considered taking my own life on and off for a period of months. My GP even wrote a letter to them to spell out the severity of my illness and how the situation was putting me in danger.”
He won an appeal last February, and will now receive his backdated benefits. (At the last count the rate of successful appeals was running at about 40%. The projected annual cost of appeals has been put as high as £50m – although Atos incurs no penalty for getting things so wrong.)
All of this is scandalous, yet it goes on – seemingly of no concern to the supposed everyman, nor to the politicians who fixate on him. This raises two issues: first, the treatment being meted out to thousands of people should be a moral offence to all of us; and second, our flexible labour market and increasingly brutal welfare system are now so constructed that even if you are doing well, it is perfectly possible that you could fall ill, and then find yourself just as terrified as the thousands who are currently being herded through the WCA process.
In the modern benefits system, trapdoors abound: if you fail to get the employment and support allowance and find yourself on jobseeker’s allowance, for example, you will not only suffer a 14% drop in income but may very well fall foul of the latter’s demands and find yourself “sanctioned”, with no benefits at all. The next stop is that miserable demi-monde that defines more lives than a lot of people would like to think: crisis loans, food banks, the very real prospect of ending up destitute.
In other words, the old aspirational tagline of the national lottery now applies to some of the most iniquitous aspects of the benefits system. Really: it could be you.
Friday, July 22nd, 2011
The failed regeneration of Morecambe is a depressing example of how the private sector cannot thrive if the state’s hacked back
Eva Skawinska is 47. In her native Warsaw she worked as a hospital radiographer. Now she runs a restaurant on Morecambe seafront – Eva’s, where the standard of food surpasses most of what you’d find in the average British town centre.
One problem: the business sits in the midst of what amounts to a huge but half-finished regeneration project, dealt blows by the recession and the austerity that has followed it. “We opened at a bad time,” she says – and she’s not wrong. If takings stay much the same, she tells me, Eva’s won’t remain open for much longer than a year.
Her story is presumably the same as that of scores of small-scale risk takers who took a punt on the revival of the English seaside – witness optimistic pre-recession talk about Hastings, Margate, Folkestone and more. The hope was that dreams dangled in property columns and Sunday supplements might somehow take flight, but they have often plunged earthwards, like those infamous birdmen on Bognor pier.
I pitched up in Morecambe on the back of an online Anywhere but Westminster discussion where one of the most interesting posts was left by a Guardian user named Tiojo: as it turned out, a fan of the town who has been here as a tourist. “What about Morecambe and its attempt to reinvent itself as the Deauville of the Irish Sea coast?” he asked. His post paid tribute to the Midland Hotel – the art deco beauty recently restored by the Manchester-born developers Urban Splash, which offers a gleaming local example of high-end hospitality. But he then asked a couple of awkward questions. “Where are the small-scale entrepreneurs to open bistros, wine bars and boutiques that are a big part of today’s holiday? What of the galleries and performance spaces that attract visitors to all sorts of places?”
Quite so. As a child I used to come to Morecambe in the early 1980s, when it offered a human-sized alternative to Blackpool and had the largest big wheel in Europe, plonked in a wild west-themed amusement park called Frontierland. The latter is now derelict: a rusting, fenced-off dead zone owned by the supermarket Morrisons, which has apparently banked the land pending an upturn.
Morecambe’s promenade, by contrast, has been splendidly spruced up. But as plenty of other, boarded-up places confirm, things are not good at all. The so-called West End, a grid of streets at one end of the front, is Morecambe’s predicament in microcosm. Once a thriving cluster of hotels and B&Bs, it has become ridden with social problems, as its low-rent accommodation filled up with people parked on incapacity benefit. But around 2005 there was bold talk of its reinvention as a pleasant location for family homes.
A good deal of that effort has now stalled. The West End’s regeneration was meant to be spread over 15 years, but the crash happened three years in, and the money started to run out. The abolition of a body called the North West Regional Leaders Board cost the West End around £1m. The Homes and Communities Agency promised £2.3m but that cash is no longer available. The winding up of the Northwest Regional Development Agency kiboshed a £750,000 contribution to the Morecambe Townscape Heritage Initiative. And so the woe goes on: a crash in local property prices, for example, has repelled private developers. Everything feels as if it has seized up – and given that people such as Eva Kawinska were gambling on regeneration continuing, that’s very bad news for scores of local businesses.
The lessons from all this are so obvious as to be almost painful. In a place like this, if you hack back the state, the private sector does not thrive in the newly vacant uplands: it shrinks, at speed. It really is the cruellest thing to behold – one blinkered decision following another, and hitting a town full of sparky, driven people who desperately want to revive it.
A good example is Sonja Campbell, an artist and film-maker who grew up in Blackburn and then moved to London, but came here to start a family. She and her other half bought their five-bedroom house for less than £100,000. Morecambe’s history and character is part of what attracted her; so too is the nearby Lake District. She dreams of a more robust local economy, buoyed by creative types. Living here, she says, “lets your mind breathe a bit”. Listening to her talk, it’s obvious that this place should have a future – and that if it doesn’t, Morecambe will count as one of austerity’s saddest casualties.
Friday, July 22nd, 2011
Rupert Murdoch and his son James pleaded ignorance of the full extent of the alleged illegal practices taking place at News International at a dramatic appearance in front of the culture, media and sport select committee.
The session, disrupted by a slapstick assault on the elder Murdoch, yielded little new information but kept up the pressure on David Cameron to reveal exactly what he knew about his former spin doctor Andy Coulson’s reign as editor of the News of the World.
Martin Kettle, Julian Glover and John Harris discuss the damage the affair has done to the prime minister and how he can move forward from it.
Also this week: as Westminster was captivated by the phone-hacking drama, the rest of Europe continues to search for a solution to the crisis at the heart of the single currency.
With so much at stake, the panel discuss how the traditionally Eurosceptic Conservatives are being forced to embrace further European integration in order to stave off a financial catastrophe.
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Friday, July 22nd, 2011
Video: John Harris visits Morecambe, once described as the ‘Brighton of the north’ but where recession and cuts have brought its regeneration to a halt
Tuesday, July 19th, 2011
The close ties between politicians and the media mean that if Murdoch’s empire falls, the political establishment will suffer
At 2.30 on Tuesday 19 July, the story that has spread itself over the news for weeks will reach one of its most spectacular moments. An elderly American–Australian billionaire and his 38-year-old son will be transported to the Houses of Parliament, along with a 43-year-old woman from Warrington, long used to the company of the rich and powerful, but freshly departed from her high-powered job and just released from a central-London police station. There, they will face a committee of MPs, from a wide array of backgrounds – among them, a trade unionist’s son from Kidderminster; a privately educated chick-lit novelist who has recently married the manager of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; and a woman who was once the finance director for the company that makes Mars bars.
Exactly what will happen when Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks face the culture, media and sport select committee is anyone’s guess. Tom Watson – the Kidderminster-raised Labour MP whose dogged pursuit of News International forms one of the key threads of how the hacking scandal has played out – warned the Guardian against getting too excited. “There is not going to be a killer blow on Tuesday,” he said. “Expectations are way too high.”
That may be true, but even if the trio hide behind half-answers and obfuscation, there will plenty on which to feast. Body language will be picked apart; pauses will acquire huge significance; the merest slip-up might open up very damaging lines of inquiry. And besides, the event will be defined by one massive piece of symbolism. In the 43 years he has been operating in the UK, Rupert Murdoch has never formally faced British MPs. Why would he, when the most powerful among them would gladly grant him regular audiences, opening the back door of Downing Street so they could check that everything in his world was as perfect as it could possibly be?
Yesterday, in the wake of yet more arrests and resignations, I listened to another media appearance by Steve Hewlett, the Guardian columnist and presenter of Radio 4’s Media show – who, in the midst of droves of talking heads coming close to losing theirs, has sounded a dependable note of calm and real insight. As far as I know, he has not talked about the “British Spring”. But when he popped up towards the end of the Today programme, he seemed to agree that something absolutely remarkable was afoot.
“It’s almost as if the whole establishment – the political-media elite – is in a state of wobble,” he said. “Any association with Murdoch and his papers, which quite naturally everybody has had in some form . . . is now so toxic that any mention of it is . . .”
“I mean, look: it’s carnage. It’s almost as if the light has suddenly come on, and everybody has said: ‘Good lord – were we doing that?’”
This is an example of what he means. On Saturday 2 July, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and her millionaire PR husband Matthew Freud hosted a party at their 22-bedroom mansion in the Cotswolds. Michael Gove, the education secretary, was there. So was David Cameron’s consigliere Steve Hilton, and the culture minister Ed Vaizey. The Labour figures in attendance included Peter Mandelson, the ex-work and pensions secretary James Purnell, the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander – and his shadow cabinet colleague Tessa Jowell, who reportedly arrived with her supposedly estranged husband David Mills. They were joined by David Miliband – who, let us not forget, was supported in his quest for the Labour leadership by the entire Murdoch stable of newspapers.
Robert Peston was glimpsed in deep conversation with Will Lewis, News International’s general manager. The BBC’s director general Mark Thompson turned up, along with Alan Yentob, Jon Snow from Channel 4 News, Bear Grylls, Mariella Frostrup, Lily Allen and Patrick Kielty. And what a time they had: thanks to Nick Jones, the owner of the members-only Soho House club and husband of Desert Island Discs’ Kirsty Young, two marquees had been turned into pop-up versions of his London reaturants, Cecconi’s and Pizza East, and drinking and dancing went on until 4am.
Also among the guests was James Murdoch, who spent much of the night talking intently to Rebekah Brooks – whose behaviour that night was said to be somewhat uncharacteristic. “Usually, Rebekah flits around having a word with everyone,” one witness told the Daily Mail. “She loves being the centre of attention. But that night, she spent nearly all her time with News International people.”
The following Monday, when plenty of the revellers must still have been feeling groggy, the Guardian ran the story by Nick Davies and Amelia Hill about Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked. And so began the explosion of revelations that has – for the time being, at least – blown this cosy, cloistered world apart.
A long love affair
Self-evidently, powerful people tend to cluster together. Those who control the media are a particularly strong magnet for the rich and influential, and there is a long history of people from all sides of politics sharing their company. Take note: that great socialist godhead Aneurin Bevan was a friend of Lord Beaverbrook, as was Bevan’s protege Michael Foot, who was so enamoured of the proprietor of the two Express titles and the London Evening Standard that he once said this: “I loved him, not merely as a friend, but as a second father.”
But the endless scramble to Rupert Murdoch’s table, and the powerful milieu that sprouted around him and his children, has been something new. When he decisively began to exercise his grip on British politics in the 1980s, Murdoch was an intimate of Margaret Thatcher, who cleared the way for his move into British television, though to claim that she was under his spell was deeply misplaced. As with so many things, the rot decisively started under New Labour, thanks to obvious enough reasoning: News International had so tortured John Major and Neil Kinnock, that rather than be monstered by people who evidently decided who to target and then pursued them to the point of destruction, it was surely better to get them decisively on side, via whatever means were necessary. So, in July 1995, Tony Blair and his retinue famously made their whistlestop trip to a News Corp conference in Hayman Island, off the coast of Australia.
The Murdoch factor undoubtedly informed swaths of New Labour politics: not least, an ingrained reluctance to embrace the more economically interventionist aspects of the European Union, and a reckless belief that Britain should always support American foreign policy, no matter how dangerous the consequences (never forget: all of Murdoch’s newspapers loudly backed the invasion of Iraq). Moreover, even before Blair entered Downing Street, he and his allies’ closeness to News Corp seems to have led to very precise manoeuvres on Labour’s media policy.
In 1996, for example, the Major government’s broadcasting bill was making its way through parliament. There was particular controversy surrounding the question of whether the legislation should force Murdoch to manufacture digital TV boxes that could be used for services provided by other companies – so that, if you chose to buy BSkyB kit but wanted to watch television delivered by another provider, that was possible. The alternative was effective monopoly, as plenty of Labour MPs well knew. But when it came to the vote at committee stage, two Labour members mysteriously went missing, meaning that the vote was tied 11-11, Murdoch got his way – and we began our passage into that brave new TV world where BSkyB has a UK market share of 80%.
If you read Volume One of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, you find one possible explanation, not just for this, but other New Labour capitulations to News Corp – such as the 2003 “Murdoch clause” that relaxed the rules on the acquisition of TV companies by newspaper owners, and thus opened the way to a Murdoch buyout of Channel 5 (which didn’t happen – though it’s this change that allowed in that unseemly sub-Murdoch Richard Desmond). It’s there in an account of a meeting between Campbell, Blair and Mandelson, and Les Hinton and one Jane Reed, then News International’s director of corporate affairs. “They were clearly worried that party pressure would lead us to adopt positions on the broadcasting bill, and legislation if we got in, that would hit their business interests,” Campbell recalls.
Later in the same paragraph, he seems to suggest that in return for Labour’s quiescence on these issues, they expected full and consistent support from Murdoch’s newspapers: “I emphasised that they had to understand that there would be a big price to pay in the party if we restricted and curbed the natural desires of people to do something about Murdoch, and ultimately the Sun and News of the World really went for us.”
When I interviewed Campbell last year, he was at pains to deny that the Blair government had ever offered News International any kind of quid pro quo on anything. Still, I asked him about the broadcasting bill, and suggested that behind his account of meeting Hinton and Reed and that mention of “curbing” the collective Labour desire to somehow move on Murdoch, there had been a whole tangle of intrigue. He nodded. “Mmmm. Mmmm,” he said. “I’d forgotten about that.”
Twelve years later, in the summer of 2008, David Cameron was transported in a private plane – laid on by Freud – to the Greek island of Santorini, from where he was ferried to Rupert Murdoch’s 184ft yacht the Rosehearty, for an important meeting. The following year, the Tories began to harden a new antipathy to the BBC, floating the freezing of the licence fee and urging the corporation to do “more with less”: messages that were in accord with the chippy anti-BBC lecture James Murdoch gave at that year’s Edinburgh TV festival. Just over a month later came achingly predictable news: that the Sun was swinging its support behind the Conservatives, and dumping Labour.
By then, the spell cast by the Murdoch empire on politicians of all parties was endlessly reported as if it was the natural order of things. The next year, when the Sun announced its support for the Tories with the headline “Labour’s lost it”, even the BBC reported the switch as if it were an enshrined part of the British political process, rarely questioning why its reporters were paying so much attention to the whims of one man, or what it said about the fall of our politics that his manoeuvrings were considered so important.
Meanwhile, the so-called Chipping Norton set – the Camerons, Elisabeth Murdoch and Matthew Freud, Brooks and her husband Charlie, Steve Hilton and his wife Rachel Whetstone, Google’s head of communications and public policy – was developing into a hardened clique. News International had long since seduced not just politicians, but police officers. In Sunday’s deluge of news about Met commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, one story was strangely overlooked: that according to the New York Times, his links with News International were sufficiently close for him to have “met for meals 18 times with company executives and editors”. All told, British politics was blurring into a mulch largely built around policies the Murdochs could endorse, and their company was apparently so gone on its own power that some of its staff obviously thought they were way beyond the law.
The unpopular press
Which brings us to some of the most important questions of all. Even before the hacking scandal decisively broke, how does anyone suppose all of this was this playing with the public? How did ordinary voters feel, watching every broadcast outlet telling them that Murdoch had swapped from Labour to Tory, and implying that the next election was thereby all but decided, as if their own votes counted for precious little? As they heard about Blair’s trip to Australia, or Murdoch and Cameron’s tete-a-tete in Greece, what did they think? This is not to suggest that millions of people were anywhere near as hostile to the Murdoch empire as hard-bitten lefties, nor that the politics of his newspapers did not chime with those of millions and millions of people: but rather to point out that if politicians have long gnashed their teeth about “disconnection” and the decline of public trust, the fact that they have increasingly formed a distant, pampered elite – with the Murdochs at its centre – must surely provide some of the explanation.
Right now, as the arrests and resignations pile up, you wonder how dangerous all this is for the amazingly small collection of people who have such a colossal influence on British public life. Comparisons between the fall of News International and the crisis that beset the banks are currently 10-a-penny, but there is one point of comparison that has not yet been mentioned. Just as the entire banking system was almost brought down by the insidious contagion of bad debt, might an entire establishment be horribly damaged by its equally widespread and just as toxic links to News Corp? Each time Andy Coulson crash-lands in the headlines, David Cameron flinches. When Stephenson resigned thanks to the Met’s links with the former NoW staffer Neil Wallis, he made explicit reference to Coulson, and thus defined a whole swath of the next day’s headlines, as well as jangling Downing Street nerves even further. Now Assistant Commissioner John Yates has gone – and Boris Johnson remains under fire for the London mayoralty’s failure to act on the seemingly unhealthy connections between Wapping and Scotland Yard.
On and on it goes. In every report that followed Brooks’s resignation and arrest there were potent images of her in the company of Blair, Cameron and others. Ed Miliband may have largely kept his distance from the Murdochs, but there are plenty of senior Labour figures who have been only too happy to pay court, repeatedly. And one other thing worth knowing before the select committee hearing: according to the Independent on Sunday, its chairman, John Whittingdale, has dined with Brooks, met Elisabeth Murdoch on several occasions, and is a good enough friend of Hinton to have been invited to his wedding in 2009 (he didn’t go). As you push through the establishment and encounter endless links to News Corp, you start to wonder where it will all end. Questions even started to be asked about whether the prime minister should consider his position. When Stephenson resigned, a friend texted me: “Who’s next: the Queen?”
As this whole saga develops, some people’s hopes are being raised into the stratosphere. Undoubtedly, it has been great to see a Labour leader so confidently end his party’s demeaning relationship with Murdoch, and widen the argument into a discussion about wider irresponsibility at the top and the dangers of large concentrations of power. Yes, we now have the best hope in generations of convincing laws on media ownership. There is a good chance that if Murdoch’s shadow recedes, politicians will extend the national debate into at least some of the areas that have been shut off for far too long.
But beware one thing in particular. After the fall of the banks and the scandal of MPs’ expenses, the events of the last two weeks are less likely to result in a gleaming new dawn than a deepening of a deadened public scepticism about Britain’s elites, and our politicians in particular. We’ve heard a lot about Watergate lately: it’s worth bearing in mind as the full extent of the Nixon administration’s transgressions became clear, the main result was not a massed drive to get politics working again, but a drastic hardening of the public cynicism that had initially taken root thanks to the Vietnam war. In 1964, three-quarters of Americans believed the government in Washington could be trusted to do the right thing; in 1974, it was just over a third. Eventually, politics was revived not thanks to the Democrats, but Ronald Reagan and the populist New Right.
In other words, you could be forgiven for looking beyond the hacking scandal and asking a sobering question: rather than marking the point at which Westminster starts to make some kind of recovery and politicians are entrusted to clean things up, might it actually push us into a deadening stand-off between most of those at the top, and a public who now simply trust no one at all?
The Sunday before last, Elisabeth Murdoch was allegedly heard claiming that her brother James and Brooks had “fucked the company”. Here’s my fear: that as the revelations extend into the distance, they may have done the self-same thing to our politics and public life.
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